After 29,233,380 seconds (about 338.3 days) on the sidelines, Rajon Rondo made his much-anticipated return from a torn right ACL to NBA action on Friday. Unfortunately for the Boston Celtics, the mere presence of their All-Star point guard wasn't quite enough to overcome the rival (and similarly stripped-down) Los Angeles Lakers, who escaped the TD Garden with a 107-104 win.
The loss was Boston's 13th in its last 15 games, most of which came with Jordan Crawford running the show up top. Crawford is now a member of the Golden State Warriors following his inclusion in a three-team trade involving the C's and the Miami Heat.
Not that Crawford ever had a realistic shot of starting in Beantown once Rondo got back. The latter is the face of the franchise, while the former was simply passing through.
Rondo had moments wherein he reminded all those watching why he's so highly regarded within the Celtics' shaken-up organization. On the whole, though, he looked like you'd expect any basketball player who hasn't played in a live game in nearly a year to look: rusty, slow at times and in need of some re-acclimation.
By the end of the night, Rondo had racked up eight points, four assists, two rebounds, two steals and only a single turnover in just under 20 minutes on the court.
Those may not be top-of-the-class numbers by any stretch, but that's not to say Rondo didn't make the grade in Game 1 (for him) of the 2013-14 season.
Offensive Skills/Execution: B
Let's get this out of the way: If Rondo's jumper was secretly sharp in the past, as Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry suggested, it must have dulled a bit during his long, injury-related layoff. Rondo missed all four of the shots he took outside of the paint, including his first two shots of the season: a 19-footer from the left elbow (i.e. one of his statistical "sweet spots") and a baseline look that didn't draw iron.
The Kentucky product had two solid attempts—an 18-footer from straightaway and a 25-footer from the left wing—with the C's down late in the fourth, but couldn't convert either one.
As bricky as Rondo's J was, that aspect of his game stinking at the outset hardly comes as a surprise. Rondo may have morphed into a surprisingly effective shooter from inside the three-point line, but it'd be far-fetched to point to that as a decided strength of his game.
Where Rondo has always shined—and where he shined brightest on Friday night—is at the rim. He's always been among the craftiest at his position with the ball, thanks in large part to his giant hands.
Those massive mitts of his came into play on his first make of the game, when he pulled off his patented "dipsy doo" move on the way to a layup over a challenge from Jordan Hill.
Rondo's opening salvo came shortly after Hill had blocked another layup attempt at the end of some fancy dribbling from Rondo, and kicked off a stretch of four straight scores for Rajon—his only ones of the entire night, as it turns out.
That scoring run seemed to ignite Rondo's confidence and carry him through the rest of the game. His legendary handles loosened up (in a good way), with the usual assortment of hesitation dribbles and paint probes to boot.
Rondo's passing was mostly on-point, too. Aside from a hook pass that sailed over Jared Sullinger's head and into the back court in the second quarter, all of Rondo's dishes put his teammates in position to either take a high-quality shot or make a follow-up play for a bucket. Only four of Rondo's passes led directly to baskets, though he could've just as easily registered seven or eight had those on the receiving end finished the sequence properly.
Rondo seemed to have little trouble moving around throughout, though he wasn't quite as quick coming around screens as he had been in the past. That figures to return in time, once Rondo's shaken off the remaining rust and worked himself into proper game shape.
Defensive Presence/Execution: B
It'd be a mistake to blame Rondo entirely for the strong numbers that Kendall Marshall put up at Boston's expense. Marshall tallied 19 points (7-of-11 from the floor, 4-of-5 from three) and 14 assists in 44 minutes to propel the Lakers to just their second win in their last 14 games.
But most of that came while Rondo sat, and two of Marshall's threes were the result not of mistakes by Rajon, but rather of slow rotations by his teammates. That being said, the second of those was the one that put L.A. ahead for good in the fourth.
And another of Marshall's makes came after Rondo sagged off him just a hair too much.
For the most part, Rondo was where he needed to be when he needed to be there. He always seemed to be in proper position, which made him Johnny-on-the-spot for a couple of crucial thefts. All the while, Rondo barked out directions to his younger running mates, not unlike how Kevin Garnett once did when he captained Boston's defense behind Rondo.
As was the case on offense, Rondo moved around without incident on D, and even played with a bit more discipline for Brad Stevens than he did under Doc Rivers, who allowed him to freelance for steals and disruptions in years past.
Chemistry with Teammates: A-
It took some time for Rondo to adjust to the new cast of characters he found around himself—but not much. As discussed earlier, the vast majority of his passes were of the pinpoint variety, with his toss over Sully's reach as the lone blemish of any note.
Any concerns about him playing alongside Kris Humphries, with whom he's had his differences, were quickly allayed after Rondo twice found the Ex-Mr. Kardashian in the third: once with a bounce pass for a near-dunk on the break and another time for what should've been a baseline J.
Rondo didn't seem to have any noteworthy confrontations with his teammates this time around. His aforementioned barking on D wasn't done with any tangible malice, even though the other C's weren't always in the right spots.
Perhaps this was just a case of a happy honeymoon for the occasionally hot-headed Rondo. For now, though, he and this funky bunch in Beantown appear to be getting along just fine.
Stamina wasn't really an issue for Rondo, if only because the C's made sure it wouldn't be. GM Danny Ainge told WBZ 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher & Rich show that his lone remaining superstar would be limited to no more than five minutes per quarter, and that's exactly what happened. Stevens had Rondo out there for the first five minutes of the first and third quarters, for 4:39 during the second half of the third quarter and for the final 4:35 of the game in the fourth.
Still, kudos to Rondo for holding his own during those limited minutes. At no point did he look gassed, even while spending most of his time either with or on the ball.
The C's figure to bring him along slowly, until he's gotten to the point where he can handle his previous load of 35-to-40 minutes per night without incident.
Overall Grade: B+
Rondo's opening grade would've been better had he not been culpable in the C's poor results during the final few plays of the game. Point guards of Rondo's caliber and central role tend to be judged on wins and losses, and on this night, he didn't rescue Boston from defeat.
On the whole, though, Rajon played well in his first game back. He had no trouble with his new knee and was comfortable with both the ball and the reshuffled squad that Danny Ainge put around him after the final dismantling of the previous era's core this past summer.
The key for Rondo and the C's going forward is to see how much of his previous form he regains and, from there, whether he can handle being the focal point of a rebuilding franchise. If Rondo looks like the Rondo of old, he may well find himself on the trading block at some point, perhaps during the 2014 NBA draft.
Speaking of which, Rajon's recovery will likely impact how the C's come out on draft day this year. The quicker he comes back to life and the better he performs in doing so, the better Boston's odds of winning night to night will be and, in turn, the worse their chances of landing one of the top picks in the draft will become.
But such concerns shouldn't keep fans in New England from enjoying the on-court exploits of their hobbled hero. Instead, they should revel in Rondo's flashy antics and pay close attention to how he affects his teammates.
And let the rest take care of itself.
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